Not without Nola

When his team has not fallen out of the top ten in the polls all season, it is tough for an NCAA baseball head coach to make any major changes to his starting nine. That is, unless you want to win a National Championship.

The middle of the Tiger infield had been set since the end of LSU’s run in Omaha last summer.

Ryan Schimpf, who batted .320 in his sophomore campaign, had started 65 of his 67 games at second base.

DJ LeMahieu did him one better. The Michigan native started 67 of his 68 games at shortstop, where he batted .337 en route to Louisiana Freshman of the Year honors.

On April 21, forty games into the Tigers’ 2009 season, head coach Paul Mainieri had seen enough. The lineup would be no more.

Believe him, it was not an easy call.

The pair had totaled over 100 starts together up the middle. At the plate, they were just as consistent. LeMahieu is batting a team-high .349, followed by Schimpf’s .328 average.

Yet, for Mainieri, something was missing.

“I did not feel like we could win a championship with the way things were set up,” he said. “We had Austin Nola on the bench, and he gave us a chance to be extraordinary. I know the strengths of my team after 40 games, and my responsibility is to make the moves that will put us in the best position to win.”

According to Mainieri, the late-season date was no matter.

“Why do you think MLB teams make big trades so often right before the final trade deadline?” he said. “If you see something that can make your team better, no matter when that comes in the season, then you have to make it happen.”

So, the Tiger skipper made it happen.

Nola dusted off his glove and took to the field for his initiation into the college ranks. Schimpf moved to left field while LeMahieu slid into the vacant spot at second, giving LSU fans their new look infield on April 21 against Southeastern.

That night, the freshman turned a 6-unassisted double play and was part of a pair of 4-6-3 double plays.

13 games later, that performance has been recreated on a number of occasions.

“I think he has been an A all around,” Mainieri said. “In the field, there is no question in my mind he has made a difference. We have turned some big plays since he has been there, and that is why I put him in. I thought he could be a difference maker. His composure and poise have been great.”

While his .204 average at the dish is not easy on the eyes, the Tiger skipper is not sweating the numbers just yet.

“You look at his average and think it is down, but he is a victim of some tough luck,” Mainieri said. “I think he has hit the ball hard at people and had some tough outs. At the same time, he has had so little at bats that if he had a three hit game his average would be pretty respectable.”

Nola, who batted .447 in 2008 at Catholic High with 13 home runs and 42 RBI, said that his focus remains on the small stuff.

“My average is poor, but I have made some solid contact, so I feel like a rhythm is developing,” he said. “My goal right now is to just get on base, whether it is with my bunting ability or getting a crucial walk.

“I have Mikie [Mathook], Schimpf and [Blake] Dean behind me, and those guys need runners on base. Coach told me to just have some fun when I get out there, so that is what I am going to do. Things will turn around.”

Though his glove might seem golden to most, Nola said that work is still to be done in the field.

“DJ is still helping me a lot, from the cover moves on bunts to how to play the bases in other situations,” he said. “It is stuff that is implied that we never learned, so he is bringing me along. He has a year under his belt, so why not use him?”

Both winners of the Gatorade and Louisville Slugger high school awards, LeMahieu and Nola seem to be the perfect flavor as LSU turns to the postseason.

Of course, back on April 21, things could have gone a lot worse.

Had Nola failed, Mainieri would have been served a cold reality check from the LSU faithful.

Hasn’t he heard to not fix what isn’t broken?

Why shuffle the cards when you are rolling with one of the nation’s top-ranked teams?

Mainieri’s reply is short and sweet.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he said.

Call it what you want, but the Tiger skipper will stick to labeling it as “the answer.”

“The lineup we had before could not win us a National Championship, no matter our ranking,” he said. “With this lineup, we can win it all. I believe that.”

Believing it and having it become a reality, of course, is the gamble.

“It ranks up there in my years of coaching as the toughest, maybe even gutsiest decisions I have made,” Mainieri said. “If it did not work out, I was open to a lot of criticism.

“After the Tennessee series, though, I could not sit on it any longer,” he added. “I knew in my heart that it was the right move, and it has paid off for the team.”


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